Carla BlackHow to grow Heliconia, brightest tropical flower

You’ve seen them, even if you didn’t know what they were called. Heliconias are the ultimate exotic flowers, starring in arrangements in tropical hotels around the globe and as far away as outer space – on television, anyway; heliconias greeted intergalactic ambassadors on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Closer to home, they can’t be beat for providing fantastic foliage and bright color in tropical and subtropical gardens. Stunning long-lasting cut flowers are a big bonus.

Heliconia caribaea

Heliconia caribaea

Heliconia lennartiana

Heliconia lennartiana

Heliconia lennartiana

Heliconia lennartiana


Heliconia is the only genus in its family, Heliconiaceae, in the order Zingiberales. Its most famous cousins are bananas (Musaceae), gingers (Zingiberaceae), birds of paradise (Strelitziaceae) and cannas (Cannaceae).

Heliconia rostrata

Heliconia rostrata


The colorful bracts, always in shades of red, yellow, orange and green, protect the true flowers that last only a day or two and are replaced by others over the months-long life of the inflorescence.

Heliconia true flower

Heliconia true flower

Green-crowned brilliant & Heliconia stricta. Photo scott.zona

Green-crowned brilliant hummingbird on Heliconia stricta. Photo scott.zona


Astonishingly, all of the gorgeous forms of heliconia are made by nature. Humans have not been able to successfully hand-pollinate heliconia, so there are no artificial hybrids. Hummingbirds are the only pollinators observed by scientists, though many other creatures visit the flowers. Natural hybrids are rather common, thanks to incessant visits by those hummers. Humans do have a role in new forms, though: seeds of cultivated plants often produce new hybrids, thanks to hummingbirds in gardens visiting numerous species that are never near each other in nature.

Now that you know about the role of hummingbirds, which are found only in the New World, you’ll not be surprised to learn that the approximately 250 species of heliconias are native to the Americas (with the exception of six species in the South Pacific which are pollinated by bats). Correspondingly, gingers are native to the Old World; there is just one genus of ginger in the Neotropics: Renealmia. Heliconias are thoroughly tropical, with very few species withstanding sustained temperatures below 10ºC (50ºF).

Heliconia hirsuta

Heliconia hirsuta

Heliconia barryana (0)

Heliconia barryana


When it comes to identifying species, Heliconias are categorized primarily by their inflorescence habits: upright or pendent, and a flat (distichous) or spiral bract arrangement. The leaf arrangement of most heliconias is musoid, which means their leaves look like those of banana: six or eight large leaves extending above a longish stem. But to break the rule, Heliconia hirsuta, for example, is zingiberoid, which means it has many small leaves evenly spaced along the stem, like a ginger. The flowers of Heliconia hirsuta and Heliconia psittacorum look similar, but the foliage clearly distinguishes them.


Heliconia ramonensis var. lanuginosa

Heliconia ramonensis var. lanuginosa


Like other plants in the order Zingiberales, heliconias are most often propagated by division of rhizomes. My good friend Jan Hintze wrote about propagating heliconia from rhizomes for GardenDrum.

Seeds on Heliconia faunorum

Seeds on Heliconia faunorum


Heliconias can also be grown from seed. It is a longer process, but seeds are sometimes the only way to get a new variety, and seedling plants are often stronger than divisions. Ripe heliconia fruits hold between one and three seeds that turn blue when ripe (except for those bat-pollinated species, whose fruits turn red). Jan also describes how to grow heliconias from seeds.

Seeds on Heliconia yellow panama

Seeds on Heliconia hirsuta ‘Yellow Panama’


I enjoy trading heliconia seeds for any other tropical plant seeds, so drop me a line if you like to barter!

Though a few varieties have stained the entire genus with the reputation for running wild through the garden, many heliconias form close clumps. Before choosing a heliconia for your garden, try to visit the adult plant in the ground. You’ll see the overall size and spread, and be able to put it in the right spot.

Heliconia psittacorum

Heliconia psittacorum

Large Heliconia stilesii at Las Cruces

Large Heliconia stilesii at Las Cruces


The overall size of heliconia species ranges from the smallest Heliconia psittacorum, usually a meter tall and Heliconia stricta ‘Dwarf Jamaican’ at under 50cm, to the biggest, Heliconia titanum at 10 m or more. Commonly grown garden varieties, even in the same species, such as Heliconia stricta, can vary from under a meter tall to three meters depending on the cultivar.

Heliconia titanum

Giant Heliconia titanum


A photo of the flower or a plant in a pot won’t tell you what you need to know for proper placement in the garden, so be sure to get more information.

The thickness of Heliconia titanum's stem gives you an indication of its size

The thickness of Heliconia titanum‘s stem gives you an indication of its size


If you live in the subtropics or in a dry climate, start with the tried and true heliconia varieties offered by local nurseries. Then once you are successful, move on to varieties from farther afield.

Heliconias don’t suffer from many problems in the garden, especially if a few basic needs are met. They want warm weather, regular watering and plenty of organic matter in the form of mulch. The amount of direct sun they tolerate depends on the variety, but most look best in bright shade. Some gardeners fertilize and others don’t; I think it depends on how much leaf litter and other organic material is decomposing in place. Animals and insects that root around for juicy rhizomes will get into heliconias; those of you with problem creatures are all too familiar with them, and you have to take the same precautions with heliconias that you do with other related plants. Few fungi, bacteria or insect pests cause serious problems if the plant’s basic wants are provided: warmth, water and mulch.

Lower-growing Heliconia 'Dwarf Jamaican'

Lower-growing Heliconia ‘Dwarf Jamaican’


Maintenance consists of removing old leaves and stems that have finished flowering, on a schedule that fits your desire for neatness in the garden; the plants don’t mind old stems fading away in place, and they withstand regular cutting of healthy stems, as is done in cut flower farms. If you can chop and drop the spent leaves and stems and leave them as mulch at the base of the plant, all the better.

Online resources:

Heliconia Society International
Heliconia Society of Puerto Rico

and websites of the many nurseries that sell heliconias.


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Carla Black

About Carla Black

I have lived and gardened in Panama in the Western Highlands near Volcán, Chiriquí for 20 years. My favorite plants are Heliconias, especially our native Panamanian species. There's nothing better than heading into the backcountry to see them in habitat. I currently serve as president of the Heliconia Society International.

12 thoughts on “How to grow Heliconia, brightest tropical flower

  1. Hi Carla,

    I am a fairly new resident (4 years) to Saipan (Pacific Island) from the USA (Virginia). I am learning about tropical plants (a new hobby). Saipan was a large battle site in WWII and many plants were destroyed in the “after burning” of the land. We have an endangered “fruit bat” population here (no hummingbirds). I find it interesting that the Pacific Island heliconia are pollinated by bats, and I’m wondering if that is why heliconia seem so rare on Saipan – or if it is b/c the landscape was bombed/burned. — In any event, I am hoping to introduce, some beautiful tropical plants and species to the island and wonder if you have any suggestions, based on your knowledge and experience. — We do not have any “plant societies” here, that I have found.

    I would love to trade for some seeds of heliconia, (or purchase if you wish)… We do have Donni Sali (hot peppers that are loved by birds). I am not sure what other fruits or plant seeds you may be interested in, but I am happy to discuss further.


  2. Dear Shelley,

    Congratulations on your adventurous move to Saipan! I suspect that the main reason there are few heliconias is that humans usually plant them by rhizome divisions, which are heavy and have to pass quarantine inspection. Then, it’s true, any plants already on the island won’t produce many seeds, though the clumps will grow and be ready to divide in just a few years.

    I would be happy to trade seeds with you! Let’s continue the conversation by email. Please write to me at carla @


  3. Good morning My brother. My Name is David and I am from Louisiana. I would ask if you have a few seeds of different Heliconia you would share with me to get started. I seen one from trinidad called “Heliconia Baslier”. Please email me back my brother.
    Brother David

  4. Hi: I live in Houston (zone 9a) and will receive a Heliconia rostrata from Logee’s soon. How should I grow it? I’m especially interested in what to do in winter. Thanks for your sage advise! Dave Sherron in Houston (gardener’s hell)

    • Hi Dave,

      You have given yourself a challenge! I haven’t grown heliconias outside their comfort zone, so I’m not the best person to give advice. But that said, I suggest you grow your new plant in a big pot and bring it inside in the winter. H. rostrata is one that will not overwinter outdoors in Houston and then come back to bloom the following summer, though some other species will. The part I’m not familiar with is how to grow a healthy heliconia in a pot. I suggest you ask about details from the vendor, or give a shout out on the Facebook group called Planet Heliconia-Ginger where many gardeners in the subtropics gather to chat about cultivation. Good luck! And most of all, have fun.


  5. Hello,
    My neighbour has just given me a whole bunch of heliconias but unfortunately they don’t have the rhizome attached (they just cut it at the stem) so I’m wondering if its possible to replant and propagate them without the rhizomes attached as I would hate to see them go to waste. thanks 🙂

    • Hi Katie,
      Unfortunately, cut stems of heliconia won’t grow. In fact, they are officially called pseudostems because they are simply a bundle of leaf bases wrapped one on the other. And as you know, there are just a few kinds of plants that will grow from leaves.
      Enjoy your cut flowers and send them to the compost so they don’t go totally to waste!

    • Dear Sang,

      Heliconias do not tolerate temperatures below 10C, and most of the species are quite large. So your challenge is to find a small species, such as H. psittacorum, and grow it in a large pot. I suggest well-draining substrate with plenty of fertilizer and regular moisture.

      Good luck!

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